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Women in the Church: Part 9 – Early Christianity

It now remains to examine, however briefly, the extra-biblical evidence for the role and position of women in the Church during the early Christian period—the period spanning roughly from 90 to the mid-3rd century A.D. Before proceeding, it will be good to point out several New Testament passages which have not yet been mentioned in this series:

  • 1 Peter 3:1-7—Instructions for husbands and wives, generally similar to that found in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:21-33; Tit 2:4-5.
  • Hebrews 11—The famous chapter on faith, in which examples from Israelite history and tradition are cited; women play a small but significant part in the list, cf. verses 11-12, 31, 35.
  • 2 John—If the “chosen Lady” (v. 1) is a particular person rather than a symbol for the Church/congregation as a whole, then she would presumably be a woman of some prominence, such as Chloe, Phoebe, Prisca, etc., in Paul’s letters (cf. Part 4).
  • Revelation 2:20-25—There was apparently an influential female prophet(ess) among the believers in Thyatira who is here regarded (by the author/oracle) as a false prophet and teacher (“Jezebel”). On the tradition of female prophets, both in the Old and New Testaments, cf. Parts 7 and 8.
  • Revelation 12 and 17—In these two chapters we find contrasting female figures—one women is virtuous (representing righteous Israel and believers) and attacked by the evil beast (chap. 12), the other a sinful prostitute seated on the evil beast and representing Babylon/Rome and the wicked (nations) of the world (chap. 17). On the Old Testament basis for these two contrasting types, cf. the discussion in Part 8.

The Apostolic Fathers

The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” represent many of the earliest surviving Christian writings (outside of the New Testament), from the period c. 90-150 A.D. The view and role of women is similar to that expressed in the New Testament letters, and especially the Pauline Pastorals (1 Timothy & Titus). 1 Clement 1:3; 21:6ff, and the Letter of Polycarp 4-5 draw upon traditional language and ethics, emphasizing the role in the family and marriage bond (cf. also 1 Clement 6:3; Ignatius to Polycarp 5). Scriptural examples of women are cited, such as Rahab (1 Clement 12 [cf. James 2:25]), Esther and Judith (1 Clement 55:3-6)—these last two present women in leading/heroic roles (“like men”, cf. below). As in the Pauline letters, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) mentions women who may have had some measure of prominence in the churches—Tavia and Alce (Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 8:3, cf. also the Martyrdom of Polycarp 17). The Pseudo-Ignatian writings include letters to and from Mary “of Cassobele” (cf. Ps-Ignatius to Hero 9), and one addressed to the Virgin Mary. Hermas also mentions a female leader named Grapte (Vision 2.4.3), who apparently oversaw instruction of women (widows) and children.

As in 1 Timothy 5:2-16, these writings give evidence of a distinct role (and position) for widows in the Church, beyond simply the need to care for them—e.g., Ignatius Smyrneans 13:1; Polycarp 4:1; 8:2; Letter of Polycarp 4:3 (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). In Smyrneans 13:1, Ignatius mentions virgins together with widows as two special groups—i.e. the unmarried women, young and old(er) respectively; cf. also the Letter of Polycarp 5:3. Virgins are referenced more frequently in the (later) Pseudo-Ignatian letters (Philadelphians [long text] 4; Antiochians 8, 12; Philippians 15; Tarsians 9; Hero 5), as, indeed, virginity becomes more prominent as a Christian ideal in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (cf. below). In the Letter to Diognetus 12:8, the Virgin Mary especially reflects this ideal for women, a theme which will be repeated frequently (along with a developing veneration of Mary) in writings of the period (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 100; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.22.4; V.19.1; Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ 17, etc).

Interestingly, the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”), which provides the most detail on organized Church life and worship, says virtually nothing about the role of women. The instruction regarding traveling teachers and prophets in chapters 11-13 uses language that may (or may not) be gender-specific—i.e., “the one coming”, “the one teaching” (the grammatical gender is masculine throughout). The references to the roles/offices of “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$) and “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, ‘deacon’) in chap. 15 almost certainly assume they will be men, as in the (earlier?) Pastoral Letters.

Apostolic traditions (from the 2nd century)

Women feature in a number of apostolic traditions (i.e. stories and teachings of the Apostles) from the second century, occasionally preserved in later writings and Christian tales (“romances”). The most notable tradition is that of Thecla, best known from the developed legendary account in the early medieval (5th-6th century?) “Acts of Thecla”, derived from an earlier collection of Pauline traditions (so-called “Acts of Paul”). According to the later tale, Thecla was the wife (fiancée) of a prominent citizen of Iconium (in Asia Minor), who was converted by the preaching of Paul (cf. Acts 16:13-14; 17:4, 12; 18:34). Central to the narrative is the renunciation of her marriage obligation (for the sake of following Christ), which leads to her arrest and (miraculous) deliverance from death. Sexual temptation and persecution continue as a main theme in the story, during the time in which she accompanies Paul on his missionary journeys. She is separated from him, but then eventually reunited (ch. 40); Thecla ultimately decides to return to Iconium to preach the word of God there, and Paul commissions her to do so (“Go and teach the word of God”, ch. 41). Thecla may indeed have been an actual disciple and ministry companion of Paul, as were a number of other women mentioned in his letters (Prisca, Phoebe, etc., cf. Part 4 of this series). The core tradition dates back at least to the mid-late 2nd century, since Tertullian refers to it (c. 200) in his work On Baptism §17. This reference is significant, as Tertullian argues forcefully (against the Montanists [cf. below]) that women are not permitted to teach and baptize; he regards the Thecla tradition as spurious or falsely attributed to Paul.

Women in “Gnostic” writings and tradition

Women and female imagery played an important part in the so-called Gnostic sects and writings known (or presumed to exist) in the second century (cf. my article on Gnosticism). Our evidence for Gnostic beliefs is two-fold: (1) the (Proto-)Orthodox authors in the 2nd-4th centuries (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Epiphanius) who wrote in opposition to their teachings, and (2) surviving texts written (presumably) by the “Gnostics” themselves, especially those recovered from Nag Hammadi in Egypt (4th century copies). Based on the “heterodox” views of the Gnostic groups, as well as the prominent feminine/female elements in some of the texts and teachings, it is often thought that they may have been more open to women participating in leadership/ministry roles; however, this is extremely speculative, and the actual evidence on the matter (either way) is extremely slight. I will summarize here several of the more important aspects of Gnostic thought in relation to women:

  • An emphasis on female disciples of Jesus—especially Mary Magdalene and Salome—in a number of texts
  • Frequent use of sexual imagery, with two key points of emphasis:
    (1) The fallen (material) world described in terms of sexual intercourse, marriage and propagation (childbirth)
    (2) All of this is spiritualized for believers (gnostics)—i.e. all such language and terminology relates to the union of the divine Soul/Spirit with the Spirit (i.e. of the Pre-existent Father)
  • Nuptial imagery is specifically made use of (i.e. the Bridal Chamber), and may involve certain rituals (Baptism, Chrism [Anointing], the “holy kiss”) which have been given a new interpretation.
  • Ancient Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions have been blended together with Christian ideas and various mythological traditions. Wisdom is typically personified as a woman, and so prominently in Gnostic thought.
  • A core principle in Gnostic thought is the (re-)union of that which has been separated/divided within the current material world. Primarily, this refers a union of the divine light in the human Soul (i.e. of the gnostic believer) with the Eternal Light (of the true God). But this is often described in terms of transcending the dualism/duality (and multiplicity) of the created world, and is expressed, with regard to sexual or gender-based language, two ways:
    (a) Elimination of the distinction between “male” and “female”, or
    (b) The “female” becoming like the “male”

Due to the complexity of this subject, and for those who are interested, it is discussed further in a supplemental article.

Montanism

Montanism was a prophetic (charismatic) movement that developed in the late 2nd century A.D. in the territory of Phrygia (Asia Minor). It was named after Montanus, the putative founder, who claimed to speak under the direct influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit). Women prophets, such as Prisc(ill)a, Maximilla, and Quintilla, were prominent, leading figures in the movement—in some ways, it would seem, better known than Montanus himself. It is perhaps best described as a reforming movement, which sought to realize (and recapture) the charismatic vitality of the early (apostolic) churches, as described in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians 11-14. The daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) seem to have served as a Scriptural pattern for Montanist female prophets; Tertullian also mentions an unnamed woman who received prophetic revelations from the Spirit (On the Soul §9). The movement was characterized by a strong ascetic orientation, emphasizing strict fasting and celibacy.

A number of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the 2nd-4th centuries wrote against the Montanists. Clement of Alexandria mentions them (“Phrygians”, in Stromateis [Miscellanies] 4:13, cf. also 1:17), and may have written more about their “false prophecy”, as Melito also may have done. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, cites several anti-Montanist works, including writings by Caius (against Proclus, 2:25; 3:28, 31), Asterius Urbanus, Miltiades, Apollonius, and another anonymous writer (cf. 5:16-18). Tertullian opposed the Montanists at first (cf. On Baptism), but later (c. 200) aligned himself with the movement (as did several Popes and leaders in the Roman church of the period). Several of his ethical, ascetic writings clearly show this affiliation (On Fasting, On Monogamy, Exhortation to Chastity), as well as numerous references in other works (e.g., Against Praxeas §§1, 13; Against Marcion 1:29; 4:22; On the Resurrection of the Flesh §§11, 63; De Corona §§1, 11; On the Soul §§9, 58). Montanism was treated as a regular “heresy” among most orthodox writers and Church leaders, continuing to be condemned in various synods and councils; however, by the mid-4th century the movement had more or less died out.

Proto-Orthodoxy and early Catholic Tradition

Tertullian represents the developing (orthodox) Church Tradition of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in his view of the role and position of women. His work On the Dress of Women draws heavily upon the contrast (well-established in the Old Testament and Wisdom traditions) between the modest, virtuous woman and the sinful (pagan) one. The introduction of sin into the world, through Eve (Gen 3; 1 Tim 2:13ff), is closely connected with sexuality. Virginity and celibacy (cf. below) take on much greater emphasis (On the Veiling of Virgins, Exhortation to Chastity, On Modesty, On Monogamy, etc), with virgins and widows holding prominent positions in the Church. At least three official (canonical) positions would seem to be established—deaconess (i.e. female deacon), widow (female elder [“eldress”]) and virgin. Tertullian forcefully argues that women should not teach doctrine or baptize (On Baptism 17), though in siding with Montanism (cf. above), he fully accepted the idea of inspired female prophets. Within certain limitations, women could engage in a relatively active ministry and service within the congregation. In the writing To His Wife, largely an exhortation to celibacy (and women as celibate widows), Tertullian mentions some of these ministerial duties (cf. 2:4). Though not allowed to administer baptism, it would seem that a key role of widows and other female ministers (deaconesses) was to assist women who were preparing for baptism (e.g., canon 12 related to the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage).

This basic outlook gradually gained official expression in the Canons (Rules) and Church Orders composed during the 3rd and 4th centuries, such the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum, cf. chap. 3, 14-16), the Apostolic Church-Order (§§20-22, 25-28), the “Apostolic Tradition” and Canons of Hippolytus (16-18, 32, 35), the Apostolic Constitutions (I.8-9; bk III; VI.17; VIII.16-28, etc) and Canons, and the so-called Testament of the Lord (Testamentum Domini, cf. I.23, 29ff, 35, 40-43, 46; II.19). However, in the imperial period (mid-4th century and following), more precise restrictions on the roles for women were established in the various Church Councils, which eventually became fixed as part of Catholic “Canon Law”. Women were barred from being appointed as presiding “elders” [presbytides] (Council of Laodicea, canon 11), and were not to approach the altar (Laodicea, canon 44); in the canons associated with the 3rd/4th Council of Carthage (397/398 A.D.), it is officially stated that women are not to baptize nor teach among men (canons 99-100). With regard to the position of deaconess, the 19th canon from the Council of Nicea indicates they were not (to be) ordained in the same manner as bishops, deacons and other male clergy (cf. also Chalcedon, canon 15). Eventually, female deacons were barred altogether—in the first and second Councils of Orange (441 A.D., canon 26; 529 A.D., canons 17-18), confirmed by subsequent synods.

Female Saints and Martyrs

Women feature prominently among the stories and traditions of saints and martyrs from the early centuries, including the extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles, and other tales of the period, which often stressed the ideal of virginity and celibacy (cf. below, and above on Thecla). Believers who suffered during the periods of persecution, as witnesses (i.e. martyrs, Grk ma/rtu$) for the Faith held a special place—either as “confessors” (those tortured) or “martyrs” (those put to death). For women, persecution in the martyrdom narratives often involve some form of sexual temptation or molestation. Prior to the imperial adoption of Christianity, there were various periods of anti-Christian persecution in the Roman empire, usually being of limited extent and tied to specific regions; the most notable (outside of that by Nero, c. 64 A.D.) occurred during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (esp. in Gaul, 177-180), briefly under Septimus Severus (c. 202), the major outbreaks under Decius (249-251) and Valerian (257-260), and finally the great persecution in the reign of Diocletian (303-305). Of the known female saints and martyrs, most are presumably historical figures, though the narratives which came to surround them in the Medieval period have certainly been filled out with various legendary (and often fabulous) details. I list here some of the notable names:

  • Flavia Domitilla—niece of the emperor Domitian, and married to the emperor’s cousin (Flavius Clemens); according to Roman writers such as Cassius Dio, Domitian eventually put Clemens to death and exiled Domitilla. There is no certain evidence that either Clemens or Domitilla were believers, but this came to be accepted in Christian tradition; to add to the confusion, some sources refer to Flavia Domitilla as the niece of Flavius Clemens, and it is possible that two different women are involved.
  • Petronilla—the daughter of Peter, according to tradition, and so indicated by a tomb inscription in the Christian cemetery (catacombs) associated with Domitilla; she is the subject of a number of (later) legends which do not seem particularly reliable.
  • Blandina—a woman named prominently among the martyrs of Lyons (177), cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.1.
  • Perpetua and Felicitas—women named among the martyrs of Carthage (c. 202); a vivid (and popular) account of their martyrdom survives from the early period, and they are mentioned by both Tertullian (On the Soul §55) and Augustine (Sermons 280-82).
  • Agatha, of Sicily—suffered martyrdom either during the Decian (251) or Diocletian persecution.
  • Cecilia of Rome, whose martyrdom is dated variously during the second and third centuries (c. 230?).
  • Agnes of Rome—martyred at Rome under Diocletian (cf. Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy 1:41 [213]; Jerome Letter 130.5, etc).
  • Catherine of Alexandria—one of the best-known and revered of the female martyrs, though there is little reliable information regarding her life or death (cf. Eusebius’ Church History VIII.14); her martyrdom is dated in the early 4th century under Maximin.

In discussing the most famous women from early Christian tradition, one may also mention the Veronica-legend, which blends together at least two different strands of tradition—(1) a woman (Berenice) who offered her veil (or cloth) to Jesus on the way to the cross, and (2) a miraculous (and miracle-working) image of Jesus on a cloth (“true icon”, vera icon), best known from the Abgar legend in the Syrian Church (Edessa).

Asceticism and the rise of Monastic Tradition

The word monasticism ultimately derives from the Greek mo/no$ (mónos, “single, alone”). A “monk” is a monachós (monaxo/$)—that is, a person who keeps himself (or herself) alone, single, solitary, etc. The general religious phenomenon is more properly called monachism, whereby persons withdraw from ordinary society (including family, professional occupation, etc) and live apart, following a special religious lifestyle. Such a way of life is almost always associated with a strict, and rather rigorous, asceticism (from Greek a&skhsi$)—an intense practice or training (such as for an athlete), which, from an ethical and religious standpoint, involves renunciation of worldly things, self-denial, and, most notably here, sexual abstinence (celibacy). From the beginning, early Christianity had an ascetic emphasis, found in the teaching and practice of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13, 35, 45; 6:8-9; 8:34ff; 9:42-50; 10:21-31 & pars [but note the contrast with John the Baptist, Mk 1:4-6; 2:18]; and cf. Lk 6:20-26; 9:57-62; 16:19-31; 20:34-36 pars; Matt 19:10-12, etc), but also shared by certain Jewish and Greek philosophical traditions of the period. By all accounts, Jesus never married, and Paul also, at least at the time of his missionary journeys and letters, was single (and thus celibate). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly expresses his wish that all believers would follow his example, as long as they were equipped by God (i.e. with the maturity and mindset for it) to do so faithfully. There is certainly an ascetic streak in Paul, though he is quick to rebuke or condemn any sort of exaggerated asceticism which distorts the Gospel or disrupts Christian unity—cf. 1 Cor 7:1-5ff; Rom 14:1-4ff; Col 2:21-23; and note, in the Pastoral letters, especially 1 Tim 4:3 (also the earlier article and notes on 1 Tim 2:11-15).

As discussed above, by the middle of the second century, asceticism—especially in the form of sexual abstinence (celibacy)—came to have far greater emphasis in the Church as a whole. The ideal of virginity was widespread and highly praised. In the Syrian Churches, a distinct tradition of celibate marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:5) developed, known by the term encratism, from a Greek word (e)gkrate/w) meaning “to have power/control” over, e.g. one’s fleshly (sexual) impulses.

Monasticism (monachism) as a specific religious (and ascetic) movement began to develop by the end of the third century, primarily in Egypt, where it took root in a number of locations, spreading rapidly. Of the pioneering figures, Anthony was by far the most famous, due in no small measure to the early biography written by Athanasius of Alexandria. It is hard for Christians today to appreciate the tremendous influence and appeal of the monastic and anchorite (hermit/solitary) way of life on believers of the period. It offered a way for Christians, disillusioned with the world and the traditional (institutional) Church structure, to live out a more intense, creative, and dedicated form of Christianity—a life of prayer and devotion, engaged in spiritual warfare, apart from, and on behalf of, the world at large. While some monks chose to remain solitary, others banded together to form communities (i.e. monasteries) which often developed into religious organizations (orders), a kind of separate Church structure within the wider Church. Throughout Church history, the monastic and religious orders were at the forefront of reform and renewal movements; Luther, along with many other leaders of the Reformation, came out of the monastic traditions.

From a very early period, women participated in the monastic movement, living a solitaries or in separate communities, similar to that of male believers. Female monks are typically referred by the word “nun” (Latin nonna), an honorific title indicating age and respect. Prominent theologians and leaders such as Augustine and Jerome (in the West) and Basil (in the East) were enthusiastic champions of monasticism—for men and women both. Jerome counted among his close friends a number of noteworthy Roman women—such as Melania the elder, Melania the younger, and Paula—who were important figures and founders of monastic houses. Since, by the fourth and fifth centuries, women had been increasingly excluded and restricted from any sort of official (ministerial) position in the Church, the monastic movement functioned as a kind of early “liberation”, providing women with opportunities for participation and expression of their faith which was otherwise unavailable (outside the traditional setting of the family), giving them a distinct and empowering religious identity of their own. By the time of the high Middle Ages, a complex and rich religious culture had developed, in which women contributed variously as authors and poets, prophets and doctors, even political leaders and consultants, leaving their mark unmistakably on both the Church and society at large for generations to come. I will touch on this a bit further in the concluding article of this series.

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